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photo two men sitting at table with microphones
Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão recording alongside longtime friend and translator Alexis Levitin in Portuguese and English at the Library’s Recording Lab on April 3, 2023.

Conveyances: Poet Salgado Maranhão and Translator Alexis Levitin Join the PALABRA Archive

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The following is a post by Henry Granville Widener, Portuguese Language Reference Librarian, Hispanic Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division

Words connect us in so many ways. Whether spoken, sung or written, they can act as the sinews that link our senses and emotions to one another. When I listen to the Library of Congress’ vast collection of recordings, sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch all blend together with memories and feelings. As Zora Neale Hurston sings Po’ Gal for the Works Progress Administration, I can feel the hot Florida sun, along with a deep sense of longing that is the blues. Likewise, Pablo Neruda’s reading of Alturas de Machu Pichu places me on the cold, hard wood of the pews of an old Spanish mission as a voice intones from the pulpit and echoes off of its adobe walls.

With this first in blog in the series Conveyances, the Library of Congress’ International Collections would like to explore the ways in which the translated words held in the Library’s collections link us across continents, cultures and centuries. Our first installment explores our recently published recording of Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão, who, alongside longtime friend and translator Alexis Levitin, read from Maranhão’s Sol sanguíneo (Blood of the Sun) and discussed Maranhão’s life with letters, as well as the joys and challenges of translating poetry from Portuguese into English.

A group of Black women in dresses and headwraps dance in a line in front of an adobe and thatched roof house
Cypriano, A., photographer. (2005) Dança Do Coco. Brazil Itamatatiua, 2005. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

During the recording, Salgado Maranhão recalls his birthplace, the scorching countryside of the Northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão, which he describes by reciting his poem Blood of the Sun, pt. 4 from memory. To the poet, this was a “medieval, almost Biblical” land which lacked money, electricity, and medicine. Villagers could count on just two visits from a Catholic priest per year. This village “had nothing but people and their capacity to overcome in a land so challenging for human survival.”

In this environment, Salgado Maranhão was surrounded by the beauty of words. According to the author, growing up in a quilombo, or a village founded by Africans resisting enslavement, “gave me poetry.” While no one could read, Salgado Maranhão recalls a community “refined in terms of cultural knowledge and human interaction”, beginning with his mother, “a profoundly knowledgeable woman.” To his late mother, Salgado Maranhão offers the poem Mater, recited from memory during our recording session.

De ti não há sequer
um álbum de família:
retratos da infânica
nos campos de arroz e gergelim

Talvez reste em pensamento
pedaços de tua voz
                      no vento               
como impressões digitais
num rio

No dia em que o azul
roubou teus olhos
e o silêncio rival rasgou
teu nome,
cotovias cantaram no meu rastro.
No dia em que a manhã
cerrou teus olhos.

Sem ti
sou a flor da árvore
desolada. Agora
o mar bate em minhas rochas
e a noite ronda meus calcanhares.
Of you there’s not even
a family album:
photos of childhood
in fields of rice and sesame.

Maybe in my thoughts there linger
fragments of your voice
                      in the wind               
like fingerprints
on a river.

On the day the blue
stole your eyes
and silence tore apart
your name,
skylarks started singing in my tracks.
On the day the morning
closed your eyes.

Without you
I am the blossom on the tree,
bereft. Now
the sea beats against my rocks
and the night prowls at my heels.

At age 15, in search of work and an education, Salgado Maranhão moved to Teresina, the capital of the neighboring state of Piauí. There, the first thing he noticed was solitude, an anonymity that he had never known in his village of about 40 houses. “No one noticed my arrival. I saw that there I would be nothing, no one.” According to Salgado Maranhão, his life was saved by a library, where he first encountered the works of authors the world over, including Camões, Gonçalves Dias, Fernando Pessoa, Flaubert, Balzac, and Goethe.

Image of name plate above window in the Hispanic Reading Room
Name plate in the Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress recognizing 19th-century Brazilian writer, Antônio Gonçalves Dias

Later in life, libraries would continue to contribute to Salgado Maranhão’s worldwide travels in poetry when Valéria Gauz, a librarian at Brown University, first introduced Professor Luiz Fernando Valente to the poet’s work. Through Professor Valente, in 2007 Salgado Maranhão visited the United States and met translator Alexis Levitin. The two have worked together to translate five of Salgado Maranhão’s books into English.

According to Salgado Maranhão, his work with Levitin goes beyond a simple transfer of words. According to the poet, one often encounters translations that beg the question “where do people talk like this?” To combat this disconnect, Salgado Maranhão “allows for a widening of the signifier” in order for Levitin to explore the English language in search of words that are “palatable to those who are from here [the United States].”

photo two men sitting at table with microphones
Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão recording alongside longtime friend and translator Alexis Levitin in Portuguese and English at the Library’s Recording Lab on April 3, 2023.

For the two authors, the poems Mater, cited above, and Êxtase are “emblematic of the work of translation” and the many challenges it entails. In Mater, the obstacle for Levitin was cultural: though the poet and translator are not far apart in age, they were born worlds apart. To Levitin, an American, it was unthinkable that Salgado Maranhão would not have an album of photographs of his mother. Through conversations and many recitals alongside Salgado Maranhão, Levitin overcame his misunderstanding and corrected his translation.

The use of rhythm and repetition in Portuguese in the poem Êxtase gives it a powerful turn of phrase at its end:

Dançam hibiscos                      
na fotografia
sem movimento
em sua rubra
dançam hibiscos
de sangue
dançam na íris
da cidade
dançam no clima
dançam na rima
dançam no olho
da fotografia
dançam no cromo
do dia
dançam exóticos
dançamo exatos
no estático


Hibiscuses dance                      
in the photograph
they dance
in their crimson
hibiscuses of blood
they dance
they dance in the eyes
of the city
they dance these climes
they dance these rhymes
they dance in the eye
of the photograph
they dance lithe lithograph
of day
they dance exotic
they dance exact
in ecstasy
they dance
they dance

they give themselves to dance.


To Levitin, translator and poet are bound together by a belief that “the most important thing in poetry is the music of the language…When we work together, we listen very carefully to the cadences, the rhythms, and the consonances and the assonances in both languages. That is the heart of our work together… To create a translation that is true to the spirit of the original, the translation first of all has to be alive…That life comes to it through sound.” In fact, so alive is Salgado Maranhão and Alexis Levitin’s work of translation that those with a copy of the 2012 edition of Blood of the Sun will notice differences between the printed text and our 2023 recording, as well as the above transcriptions. So get your pens (for personal copies only!) and ears ready and enjoy the movement and the song that is Salgado Maranhão and Alexsis Levitin’s wonderful work.


The PALABRA Archive

Works by Salgado Maranhão in the Handbook of Latin American Studies

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